There are few teams in NBA history that play with a next-man-up system: the most famous still being in full force today with Gregg Popovich’s iconic San Antonio Spurs. They may just limp into the playoffs at best, but the system is still being put into practise, and with relatively good effect, as the Spurs are still deadly from the mid-range. Pop has seen the likes of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and more recently Kawhi Leonard take to the floor and play this one-of-a-kind system to perfection.
But are we seeing this way of playing being replicated in the city of Indianapolis with their Pacers? This article isn’t going to deep-dive into the intricacies of comparing the two teams, but it’s certainly interesting to note, in tandem with evaluating the Pacers as a whole and how they’ve maintained a relative level of success without an obvious leader in Victor Oladipo.
The idea of the Pacers being Spurs-lite has been thrown around as early as last season, with Indiana making a surprising regular season run to finish fifth in the standings, only to be dumped out in round one after an agonizing seven-game thriller of a series against the Lebron-led Cavs.
The system under Head Coach Nate McMillan is one that can cope without a star player being on the floor at any given time and allows for others to step up and give the same production. In fact, aside from Oladipo, the Pacers have an astounding seven players averaging double figures in points per game.
Considering the Pacers and the Spurs make up two of the bottom three for three-point frequency (with the Clippers annoyingly placing themselves between the two to make this simple statistical comparison way more long-winded than it needs to be) shows that McMillan seems to be taking multiple leaves out of the ‘Pop-Bible’.
Popovich has regularly stated how much he dislikes teams who shoot a lot of threes, with the main criminals of this being the Warriors, who have disgracefully won three championships using the long-range bombs as the main weapon in their arsenal. Popovich has, however, given into the three-point-mania through his second unit with the likes of Marco Bellineli, David Bertans and Patty Mills all shooting outside shots on a regular basis and hitting them very efficiently.
— Huw Hopkins (@coach_huw) February 26, 2019
The Pacers have also added a three-point machine in Wesley Matthews after the Knicks waived him to go along with their own set of three-point options, many of whom also come off the bench. While the Pacers aren’t focused on the three ball, the addition of shooters as well as Matthews (in the form of Doug McDermott and Tyreke Evans earlier in the season) have made them a team based around the dying art that is the mid-range.
While the Pacers clearly rely largely on their mid-range output much like the Spurs, they also play with two bigs in the starting line-up – also similar to San Antonio, something few NBA teams do, with many of them being built around elite guard-based play.
But on the topic of teams that heavily use the mid-range game, the Spurs and Pacers rank in two of the top three teams in the league for field goals between 15-19 feet – with the Warriors awkwardly placing themselves between the pair in the top three. This puts further emphasis on both teams using the mid-range as a handy tool to do damage against an opponent.
There are a few more comparable statistics that are worthy of noting too. Both teams rank bottom 10 in pace, seemingly reflective of their willingness to work for a shot in the half court rather than thrive on fastbreak opportunities. They also rank in the bottom five for possessions per game in their last three games, and this rule is continuous throughout the season. Both teams appear in the bottom 10 for the season as a whole with 101.4 possessions per game for Indiana, which ranks below San Antonio’s 102.1 – way behind the frontrunners in Oklahoma City with 107.8 per game.
With Dipo out of action, it would be fair to assume that the Pacers could well have faded out of the playoff hunt altogether. In fact, in their last 10 games, after surviving a wobbly spell in the immediate aftermath to Oladipo’s injury, they’ve gone 8-2 and are still clinging onto the third seed of the conference with the Sixers breathing down their neck.
The main thing that’s keeping the Pacers’ heads above water is their strength in depth. As much as it seems like depth in a roster is an overvalued quality, the Pacers rely on this quality to continue playing so well. The idea of the next-man-up system is something McMillan has embraced and he has assembled a squad of players capable of near-perfection.
They’re certainly a team that will cause the powerhouses of the Eastern Conference a problem come playoff time with this Pop-esque system that’s so relentless and consistent.
Despite an obvious upgrade in talent and overall basketball skill, the Pacers get far less air-time than the Calamity-Lakers, but they will get their fair share come playoff time.
When it comes down to it, the Pacers will never challenge for a championship without a star man. In fact, even with Oladipo, their prospects of a chip in the future are slim. But this system under McMillan can replicate a culture similar to the Spurs and give the Pacers a winning mentality for years to come.
It’s unorthodox for a modern NBA team, but the Pacers are making it work… for now.
Feature photo – NBAE / Getty Images / USA Today / San Antonio Spurs / Double Clutch illustration